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Movie Review: The Chaperone

Published : April 17, 2019

Glimpses of Glamour, an Intriguing Story Slightly out of Focus

Reviewed by Libby Collett

The Chaperone tells the story of Norma (Elizabeth McGovern), a married woman from the small town of Wichita, Kansas, who takes the opportunity to accompany rising young star of dance (and eventually of the silver screen) Louise Brooks, played by Hayley Lu Richardson, to New York for her big break. 

Brooks at her peak was one of the 'it' girls of the 1920s, Kansas's answer to Josephine Baker if you will, sporting sass, a short haircut, and edgy dance moves (at a time when popular culture was all plies and pirouettes) and she caused a modernist sensation.  

We meet Brooks when she is still a teenager, and she is already busting out of her home town constrictions and keen to escape the shadow of her musician mother Myra (played by Victoria Hill).  Norma is clearly keen to escape her respectable life with her respectable lawyer husband Alan Carlisle, played by Campbell Scott.  When I saw him on screen in this film I was shocked - maybe I've missed a few steps here but the last I remember him, he was the yummy but tragic lead in Dying Young.  In this film Scott is old and dusty and pretty unlikable.  In flashbacks, the reality of Norma and Alan's marriage reveals itself and much like Norma's corset, it is wound tight, stifling and dying to be unravelled.

The story becomes more complex when Norma fills in her time in New York, where she travels with Louise (who is busy trying to become a dance star at a studio run by Ruth St Dennis (played by Australia's own Miranda Otto) and her husband... more on these two in a moment. To fill in time between performances and rehearsals, Norma turns detective on herself, visiting the orphanage where she was raised, trying to find her roots.  She finds a whole lot more than just her past - inadvertently, she ends up finding her future in a very surprising way. 

Giving up more details at this stage will give away too much of the story, and to be honest it is these plot turns that are the only thing that maintain the viewer's interest. 

Otto's performance is an odd pastiche. I am sure women like this really did and do exist, but her stagey way of speaking and moving come across as comical, and her resignation about her rumoured-to-be philandering husband is just plain sad.

It is not a surprise that the screenplay was written by the writer of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes - the same show that the main star of this film features in as wealthy American heiress and mater familias, Cora - because The Chaperone drips with melodrama, and it needn't have, as there is more than enough topical and interesting narrative fodder to have made a satisfying story arc here. The scenes where Norma meets her birth mother are the most intense and satisfying in the 1 hour 43 minute run time of this film, and Blythe Danner does not disappoint in her conflicted role as Mary O'Dell.

Julian Fellows, writer of the screenplay, with actor Elizabeth McGovern.

 

Julian Fellows with Elizabeth McGovern

 

I so wanted to love this film.  It has all of the ingredients of the ultimate chocolate mocha fudge cake of my dream movie date... Great women actresses (gotta love a lady lead), sumptuous production values - a picture perfect costume drama. 

My own personal expression for this kind of film is period porn. While the beautiful dresses (linen and lace and beading, oh my!), majestic old cars and oh so stylish Art Deco buildings did deliver, sadly the story itself did not.  Not really.  And the scenes before the end when the whole cascade of characters are all together playing happy families are, in a word, incongruous.

Much like the main character Norma, whose beautiful but wistful blue eyes seem to be struggling to see clearly throughout the film, this movie is a beautiful thing that is out of focus.  The main point of interest and energy of this film is the genuinely intriguing story of Louise Brooks.  I left the cinema feeling cheated - I wanted to know more about her - and this feeling intensified far more during the final credits when you see real scenes of Brooks from her early films.  She truly was one of the most original, dynamic and gorgeous early stars of cinema - even before the 'talkie' era, and worthy of more attention in this film. 

Four gin fizzes out of five.

Review: Libby Collett




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